Sep 082009

In researching the Montreal Canadiens’ famous name, I went back through the records to 1908 and a meeting held, not in Montreal, but in Renfrew, Ontario, a small town in the Ottawa Valley. It seems that a Renfrew club, a power in the Upper Ottawa Valley league — a circuit once described as “a fence corner league” — wanted a crack at the Stanley Cup, which was then a challenge cup. At this meeting, it was decided to import star players, offering jobs and other enticements, until a Cup challenge could not be ignored.

In 1909, Renfrew iced a professional team playing in the Federal Hockey League against clubs from Cornwall, Smiths Falls and Ottawa. Goalie Bert Lindsay (the father of Ted Lindsay), an import who ran a successful poolhall in town, helped Renfrew win the Federal League championship.

A year later, there was talk that the Federal League’s competitor, the Eastern Canada Hockey Association, was winding down and a new league was to take its place. Organizers were tabbing it “the greatest league ever formed,” and Renfrew wanted in. Three teams from Montreal, the Wanderers, Shamrocks, and the all-Francophone Nationals, were reported to be charter members of the new circuit, the Canadian Hockey Association. Representatives from Quebec and the Ottawa Senators (the 1909 Stanley Cup champions) were invited to join.

Renfrew’s bold hockey ambitions led team executive Ambrose O’Brien, then 24, to Montreal’s Windsor Hotel, where he urged the CHA to consider his application. “Let’s make it a six-team circuit,” he pleaded. “I’ll gladly pay the $30 initiation fee you’re charging new teams.” O’Brien won the support of the Wanderers and Shamrocks, but the Ottawa executives scoffed at his application and persuaded their colleagues to reject the Renfrew bid.

O’Brien left the meeting room dejected, but he was not nearly as devastated as Jimmy Gardner, the manager of the Wanderers. His team, thought to be a shoo-in, had just been denied a franchise in the new league. The reason? The other owners had decided the Wanderers’ home arena, the Jubilee Rink, was too small.

Gardner stomped around the hotel lobby, cursing the men who had sabotaged his club’s plans. Finally, he sat in a chair next to the equally disconsolate O’Brien.

“Ambrose, let’s show those arrogant pups a thing or two,” he said. “I’ve got the Wanderers, you’ve got a good team in Renfrew and I know you own a couple of teams in Haileybury and Cobalt. Let’s start a new league of our own. But we’ll need a second team here in Montreal. Why not organize a team of French-speaking players, like Le National? We’ll call it Les Canadiens. Who knows? In time, such a team could become more popular than any of the other Montreal clubs.” And with those words, he laid the foundation for what would become the world’s winningest hockey team.

Some historians say that the idea for a team called the Canadiens originated, not with Gardner or O’Brien, but with James Strachan, founder of the Wanderers. But O’Brien, who put up the money to finance the hockey franchise, insisted until his death that it was Gardner’s idea and Gardner who proposed the name.

In his book O’Brien, Canadian sportswriter Scott Young poses the following question: If the owners of the Wanderers were so sure that a French-Canadian team would be a hit, why did they present it so grandly, and free of charge, to a 24-year-old from Renfrew? There is a lurking possibility, suggests Young, that it was one of those frequent instances where the progenitors of a great idea prefer to let someone else risk the money to find out if it is really viable after all.At any rate, the name Les Canadiens appears to have first surfaced during the conversation between Gardner and O’Brien in the lobby of the Windsor Hotel on November 25, 1909.

A week later, on December 2, the new league was formed in Montreal. It was called the National Hockey Association. The next day, on December 3, after papers were drawn up, the new Montreal club became a reality. Financed by wealthy Irish-Canadians from Renfrew, and by T.C. Hare of Cobalt, the Club de Hockey Canadien promptly hired Jack Laviolette as manager and first employee. The team was about to take its first tentative strides into the world of pro hockey. Despite the Jubilee rink’s limited seating capacity of only 2,700, Les Canadiens booked it for all home games.

To help manage the club’s affairs, Ambrose O’Brien hired Joe Cattarinich, who, like Laviolette, was a player of note. Cattarinich signed Newsy Lalonde and Didier Pitre, both flashy goal scorers, to the Canadiens’ sparse roster. The public was told that the franchise for the new team was to be transferred to a syndicate of Montreal sportsmen or investors as soon as such a group could be put together.

The season opened on January 5, 1910. Les Canadiens got off to a fast start, defeating Cobalt 7–6 in overtime in the league’s first-ever game. During their first season, the team wore blue jerseys with a narrow white band across shoulders and chest, upon which a large white C was superimposed. Their pants were white and their stockings red.

Meanwhile, the CHA floundered from the beginning; most games attracted only a few hundred fans. In mid January, after a mere two weeks of league play, CHA moguls swallowed their pride and pleaded with the NHA for admission, suggesting total amalgamation as their salvation. But Ambrose O’Brien and Jimmy Gardner remembered how they had been slighted a mere two months before. The NHA operators agreed to admit only two franchises to their fold: Ottawa and the Montreal Shamrocks. When these clubs abandoned the CHA, the league folded.

O’Brien generously offered the defunct Le National the chance to take over his Canadiens and was amazed when the answer was no. It ranks as one of the greatest missed opportunities in the history of sport.

After the merger, the seven-team league started afresh with each team playing a 12-game schedule. The Canadiens, alas, won only two games. A Montreal team did, however, enjoy a glorious campaign that winter: Jimmy Gardner’s Wanderers captured the league title with 11 wins and only one defeat, and they went on to claim the Stanley Cup. They also skated off with a glistening new trophy, the O’Brien Cup, made of silver from the O’Brien mines in Cobalt, Ontario, and valued at $6,000, making it far more expensive than the $50 bowl Lord Stanley had donated to hockey before the turn of the century.

In 1910, a Montreal sportsman and promoter named George Kennedy approached O’Brien with a bit of a problem. Kennedy was the proprietor of an outfit called the Club Athlétique Canadien, and he felt the NHA team was infringing on his rights to the name. The French-speaking Kennedy, who was born Georges Kendall, was mollified when he was offered the hockey franchise. He quickly accepted and under his ownership, the Canadiens’ emblem became a green maple leaf, originally superimposed with a gothic C, but later embroidered with the initials “CAC.” Imagine, a maple leaf on a Montreal sweater! By 1915, the uniforms had come to take on the appearance of the modern-day red sweater, and in 1917 a horseshoe-shaped C surrounding a smaller H was designed — an emblem that has remained constant, and constantly popular, for almost 90 years.

There is a misconception that the letter H stands for “Habs” or “Habitants” — meaning farmers or rural residents — stemming from the fact that most Canadiens were French-Canadiens from the countryside. But the H really stands for “hockey.”

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